Different Lenses

Speech: Seeing through different lenses

JimCoffin[Presented at an Interfaith Council dinner hosted by Alan and Kelly Ginsburg on October 22, 2011, about ten days before James Coffin assumed his role as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.]

By James Coffin

It’s a pleasure to be with you this evening. Although I already know many of you, I’m looking forward to becoming acquainted with those I don’t yet know. I’m excited about the possibilities of working with each of you as we seek to create a better community through greater cooperation between the various faith traditions present here in the Orlando area. The potential of an organization such as the Interfaith Council of Central Florida is immense. And I hope that over the upcoming months and years we’ll see concrete evidence of just how truly great that potential really is.

Now let me talk for a just a few moments about my own experience, because I believe that my life journey may be quite typical of many in our community.

Like most of the youngsters in the farming community in Central Missouri where I was reared, I just assumed that the way my family did things was the only truly logical, intelligent, socially and spiritually valid way to do them. Those who weren’t like us were definitely misguided. Benighted, actually. They had little if anything to teach us–because we already had all the answers! We were right; they were wrong. It was really very simple. And this type of thinking applied to all who were different from me–whether those differences were racial, ethnic, linguistic, political, spiritual, you name it. We even took it for granted that God’s native language was English–and he spoke it with a Midwestern accent!

Having been born into a strongly Republican home, I remember trying to get my young mind around the fact that our neighbors down the road were Democrats–and not just Democrats but totally out-in-the-open, unapologetic, unrepentant Democrats! They were so proud of their party affiliation that they’d flaunt it by putting signs in their yard advertising Democratic candidates! They had no shame! As if that weren’t bad enough, they were Catholic Democrats. Need I say more?

But the picture was even worse than I’m suggesting, because the Catholic Democrat problem went far beyond the road we lived on. It affected the entire nation. In 1962, when I was 11 years old, John F. Kennedy was President–Democrat . . . and Catholic. Mike Mansfield was Senate Majority leader–Democrat . . . and Catholic. And John McCormack was Speaker of the House–and you’ve guessed it–Democrat . . . and Catholic. Now before you panic because this appears to be an anti-Democrat, anti-Catholic speech, let me assure you that I’m headed somewhere with this. And it all has to do with how one simple, brief encounter dramatically changed my outlook on both Democrats and Catholics.

However, before telling that story, allow me to take a momentary detour here. In terms of faith traditions, the U.S. farming belt, where I grew up, had Catholics and Protestants. Catholics were anathema–that was a given, granted that I was a Protestant. And any Protestant denomination other than my own was suspect. None of the other religious traditions currently represented by the Interfaith Council even appeared on my radar screen.

I remember when I was about ten years old going the 120 miles to St. Louis with my father to pick up a truckload of lumber. As we drove away with our load, he casually mentioned that the men who ran the lumber business were Jewish. I wished he’d told me ahead of time. I would have checked them out more carefully. Here I’d seen my first Jews and hadn’t even had a chance to really look them over to see the differences! Coming from such an environment meant that I was into my early twenties before ever seeing a Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh.

Of course, most young people today don’t live as isolated a life as I did. Their world is dramatically more cosmopolitan. But do they actually “see” those around them who come from different cultures and different faith traditions? Or do they just see a stereotype and think that they see and know?

Fortunately, my horizons have expanded beyond the farming community of Central Missouri. After spending 14 years of my adult life outside the United States–in Mexico, England and Australia–and having traveled extensively in addition, I’ve come to appreciate and embrace the very diversity I once so greatly feared.

But back to my story describing my early-life concerns about Democrats and Catholics.

During my senior year in high school, I entered a speech contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (the VFW). I won for the entire State of Missouri and went to Washington, D.C., to compete in the national finals–where, I’m sorry to report, I didn’t win. But I spent five exciting days there in what was truly a defining experience of my life. The nation’s capital was definitely a different world from what I was used to back on the farm.

The last night of my stay, the VFW hosted a banquet, which was attended by a huge array of political dignitaries–including Richard Nixon. The White House photographer took a picture of President Nixon and me shaking hands–and I still have that picture hanging in my office. It was a privilege indeed to be photographed with the President of the United States. I mean, after all, Richard Nixon was a Republican! And a Protestant! That guaranteed that he was a good man! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before the banquet, the VFW hosted a little reception to which they invited the senators from each state and the representative from the Congressional District from which that state’s speech winner had come. The reception was a little overwhelming for a Missouri farm boy, so I sat on the sidelines and just watched.

As I sat there, a gray-haired, balding man slipped into the seat next to me. Putting out his hand, he said, “My name’s Mike. What’s yours?” When I told him, he said in a friendly and truly interested way, “Well, tell me about yourself, Jim.” Then he proceeded to ask questions about my interests, my life experiences, my opinions. For the next five minutes, he gave me his full and undivided attention, treating me as if I were the most interesting and most important person in the world. Then he shook my hand again, encouraged me to follow my dreams, and moved on to talk to one of the other high-school students.

“Was that man who I think he was?” I asked one of the VFW hosts at the event.

“Well,” he said, “if you were thinking he was Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, you’d be right.”

I sat back down in an out-of-the-way chair, dumfounded. Mike Mansfield, U.S. Senate Majority Leader, had taken time to talk to me–a mere high-school student, a farm boy from out in nowhere in Missouri. He had made me feel like the most important person in the world. In a mere five minutes he had made me feel that he really did want me to be a success in life. And in the process, he gave me a memory and a psychological boost that has stuck in my mind ever since. And–get this!–he was both a Democrat and a Catholic!

Now I haven’t become a Catholic as a result of that encounter. And I don’t think it prudent to tell you whether or not I’ve become a Democrat. I’ll leave you guessing on that one. But I can assure you categorically that the labels of both “Democrat” and “Catholic” took on totally new meaning for me after just five minutes with a man whose way of living life was a great tribute to both labels.

My story illustrates, I believe, why the Interfaith Council of Central Florida has such great potential. If we can help people in our faith communities and in the general populace to have that kind of encounter with others who may for a lifetime have been total strangers to them, if we can help people see beyond the stereotypes to the real people who make up the spiritual groups in our community, if we can foster friendships and deeper understanding between people whose faith traditions are so diverse, barriers will come down, friendships will develop, a whole new appreciation will ensue, and great things can be achieved as we work together cooperatively and unitedly.

Oh, I can guarantee that we’ll still disagree about a huge array of belief and practice. But we can disagree in a context of respect and understanding. I can equally assure you that we won’t just disagree. We’ll also discover emphases and practices that we’ll come to admire in the faith traditions of others–even though we’ll continue to differ on many of the philosophical and theological underpinnings. I can assure you that when we truly get to know each other, we’ll discover far more points of agreement than we would have thought possible. Our shared humanity, our common status as children of our Divine Creator, will give us a bond that’s more basic and more important than our many differences.

Somewhere along life’s journey, I came across a statement that I’ve tried to keep in mind in all my human interactions. It goes something like this: “All the people I meet are superior to me in some way, and in that way, I can learn from them.”

I’m not Jewish–but I can learn from the centuries of careful thought the rabbis have dedicated to defining morality and ethics. I’m not Muslim–but I can learn from the Muslims the importance of communion with God–not just every day but throughout every day. I’m not Buddhist–but I can gain from the Buddhists an appreciation of the need to control emotion and live peaceably with my fellow humans and with nature. I’m not Hindu–but from the Hindus I can gain a deeper understanding the interconnected, holistic nature of all that God has created. I’m not Sikh–but from the Sikhs I can gain much-needed impetus to work for fairness and equality for all people. Of course, as a Christian, I would hope that the groups I’ve just referred to would likewise find in Christianity certain emphases that can enrich lives.

Gaining spiritual insights from others, treating others with respect and working with others for community betterment doesn’t mean we abandon our own faith. Or that we water it down. Or that our disagreements will disappear. After all, many of our dogmas are mutually exclusive. We can’t all be right. But we can all seek to be good neighbors. We can respect each other while agreeing to disagree. And in the process, we’ll gain more than we expected.

When we can sit around a common table, when we recognize both the existence of our flaws and the richness of our spiritual traditions and values, then can we join hands as fellow travelers on life’s road to effectively work for the betterment of society as a whole.

That’s what the Interfaith Council is all about. And that’s why we so deeply appreciate the effort the Ginsburgs have put forth to host this gathering as we take an even stronger hold on trying to make a difference in our community. That’s why we so appreciate the financial backing and encouragement that has been given by the Ginsburg Family Foundation, the Florida Hospital Foundation, various religious entities and individuals. That’s why we so appreciate your making the effort to be here tonight. And thanks to each of you for your input and support as we move forward to make Central Florida a better, more respectful, more caring community.

James Coffin assumed his role as executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida just a few days after he gave the foregoing speech.